For many car enthusiasts, attending the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance is a bucket-list occasion.
Since 1950, the annual event in Carmel, Calif., has hosted the world’s most beautiful and expensive collectible cars for a week of lavish parties, blue-chip auctions, glamorous rallies, and exclusive high-roller meetings.
It was canceled last year because of the coronavirus pandemic, losing half of its routine $2 million-plus in sponsorships and ticket sales—not to mention the millions generated by the influx of tens of thousands of the world’s most avid car lovers to the Monterey Peninsula.
But Sandra Button, the chairman of the Pebble, as longtimers call it, confirmed on May 12 that the show will indeed go on this year on its usual date, the fourth Sunday in August.
How many automakers come on board, however, remains to be seen.
Mercedes-Benz, for years one of the brands with the biggest presence, will reportedly not inhabit the circus-size white tent it has in previous years.
“At this point we’re actively reviewing the return of our in-person, brand-experience events, and it’s still premature to discuss details at this time,” a Pebble Beach spokesman says.
Rolls-Royce, another preeminent marque that has usually commandeered a multimillion-dollar estate on Spanish Bay for parties so clients could see their moored yachts from the garden, will not do so this year, a source close to the company says.
Representatives from McLaren and Lamborghini have indicated the brands will attend but with reduced footprints.
“We are focusing on our customers this year,” rather than announcing big news or heavy brand building, says Roger Ormisher, a spokesman for McLaren.
Aston Martin will herald one global reveal, display two cars owned by company chairman Lawrence Stroll, and reveal “some Bond stuff,” according to a spokesman.
Porsche has said it’s pressing forward “with an abundance of caution.” Says spokesman Marcus Kabel: “We’re looking forward to returning, so long as circumstances allow us to do so.”
Ferrari will be based once again at Casa Ferrari on Fairway One at Pebble Beach. Also at Fairway One, concurrent with the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance on Sunday, the company will host the Ferrari Concorso, a dazzling array of select Ferraris that is open to all guests.
BMW—a longtime participant that has hosted meals, cocktail hours, concept debuts, and press announcements—didn’t respond to requests for comment about its plans by the time of this story’s publication.
The brand most eager to get back to normal is Rolls-Royce rival Bentley, which plans to attend “in full force,” according to a spokesperson.
“During the past year, small events and digital discussions were appropriate, but people want, and need, real interactions again,” says Christophe Georges, the president and chief executive officer of Bentley Motors Inc.
“Monterey Car Week is an opportunity to welcome Bentley customers, to meet and collaborate with them. We share our plans for the future and welcome their reactions, and we look forward to doing so again this year.”
Worth the Hype
The Pebble Beach Concours is one of several galas that dot the third week of August every year:
A lobster-stuffed, champagne-soaked lawn party called The Quail Motorsports Gathering is held on the Friday prior to the main concours on the lawns of the Quail Lodge & Golf Club at the Peninsula Hotel.
The Werks Reunion is slated for Aug. 13.
The Italiano Concourso will fall on Aug. 14 in nearby Seaside.
Tand the contrarian Concours d’Lemons—a tongue-in-cheek gathering of oddball and unloved cars—is slated for the same day, also in Seaside.
Insiders typically attend multiple events each day, driving between them in their own Bentleys, Aston Martins, and Lamborghinis, before capping the evening with associates and friends at dinner on Carmel’s Ocean Avenue.
“The concept lawn at the [Pebble Beach Golf Club] Lodge and the McCall’s Motorworks Revival at the Jet Center are a must-see—and of course, the Quail,” says Howard Leight, the owner of the Malibu Rocky Oaks Estate Vineyards, who attended Monterey Car Week for 30 years in a row until Covid-19 hit.
With the number of traditional auto shows continuing to dwindle and virtual debuts lacking the marketing muscle that helps drive sales for high-net-worth individuals, the Pebble has become the only big opportunity on the U.S. car calendar for an elite automaker to flex its prestige.
“You do not save money by cutting back on experiences with a customer,” says Bentley’s Georges. “To do so would show a lack of respect for our guests. And we must provide the Bentley experience.”
Historically, about 20,000 people dressed to the nines trek to the Pebble Beach Golf Club (and pay $500 each) for access to the climactic concours finale Sunday morning.
There, total auction sales of classic Ferraris and Maseratis by the likes of Bonhams and Gooding & Co. routinely reach $400 million.
But it’s the unveiling of futuristic concept cars and brand-new supercars for sale that bring in the high rollers that automakers of this caliber need to survive.
“Auto and luxury goods makers have signaled a very strong interest in being here—the demand is very strong,” says Pebble Beach Chairman Button.
“Nearly all of our previous partners are making plans to return, and we’re fielding a lot of interest from possible new partners.”
It costs roughly $1 million for an OEM to “do” a traditional car show or Monterey Car Week, but the rate at which attendees are converted into buyers in Monterey is far higher.
Traditional car shows claim conversion rates of less than 1%; at Pebble the rate is in the mid-double digits. For automakers, Pebble Beach is a self-selecting proposition, Polestar spokesman John Paolo Canton told Bloomberg in 2018.
Canton worked for Ducati and McLaren before he became head of communications for Volvo’s luxury subsidiary.
“Anybody who is going to fly from wherever, deal with a four-night-minimum, a brutally expensive hotel, as opposed to buying a $10 ticket to a local auto show—you’re already dealing with the people who have the money and the vested interest in the cars,” Canton said.
“It makes way more sense for premium automakers to go to Pebble.”
Fewer Dinners, More Drives
The biggest factor for the OEMs in deciding whether they can and will attend the festivities isn’t which executives in Europe have gotten their vaccines and can commence international travel.
(“The vaccine program is working well thus far, and we will incorporate recommended safety protocols at all events,” Georges says.)
Nor is it cost: The market prices of oysters and vodka are hardly prohibiting factors for companies that base their identities on no-limit opulence.
Nonetheless, many hotels on the Peninsula are honoring 2019 rates, though spokespersons for the Inn at Spanish Bay, the host hotel for the event, and InterContinental’s Clement Monterey didn’t respond to requests for comment.
It helps that the main concours shows and all of the peripheral group drives and car rallies, such as the one McLaren will host for its most special owners, are outside activities.
Organizers of the Quail say they’ll hold the event at a limited capacity, below the normal 5,000 tickets sold, whatever that ends up being.
“It just keeps changing month by month,” says spokesperson Heather Buchanan. “We don’t know yet what will be our limitations and the protocols for distancing and mask usage, but we will be following those protocols.”
Button says Sunday’s main concours will be at 75% of normal capacity, though the standard 200 cars will be displayed on the grass.
“If needed, we will increase the size of our show field to increase social distancing,” she says.
McLaren’s Ormisher said the company’s decision to not have its customary home base in a prominent spot along the Pebble Beach golf course has more to do with the house it previously used changing owners than anything else.
It all comes down to the matter of health and safety protocols during a week that traditionally capitalizes on private dinners in cozy club rooms and deals done in intimate confines over whiskey and cigars.
Such chummy activities are not exactly kosher yet, legally speaking, when less than half of the American public is vaccinated and suspicious variants of the virus are rearing their ugly heads.
Ultimately, an automaker’s decision about how much it can or cannot do officially at Pebble Beach may be made by lawyers.